Elmore Leonard is one of the most original and distinctive writers working today. His novels have been adapted for the big screen by directors as varied as Steven Soderbergh (Out of Sight), Quentin Tarantino (Jackie Brown, which was based on “Rum Punch”) and Barry Sonnenfeld. It was Sonnenfeld who directed Get Shorty, tapping John Travolta to play the charismatic shylock Chili Palmer. The film was so successful that Leonard decided to write a sequel that has now become a movie as well. F. Gary Gray (The Italian Job) is new behind the camera but Travolta returns to one of his signature roles in Be Cool.
We find Chili Palmer – a former shylock who stumbled into the movie business after collecting a vig from a producer – looking for a change. When his friend, record label owner Tommy Athens (James Woods), is murdered by the Russian mafia, Chili starts poking around and asking questions. In doing so, he meets a young singer named Linda Moon (Christina Milian), whose voice captivates him. She could be his ticket into a different line of work. Chili pays a visit to Tommy’s wife Edie (Uma Thurman), who is trying to keep the label from going under. He convinces her to let Linda record a demo; the end result is so promising that Edie immediately signs the singer.
If the movie business is cutthroat, then the music industry is positively brutal, which Chili finds out quickly. Linda is technically already being managed by a lowlife named Raji (Vince Vaughn) – a white guy who thinks he’s black and speaks only in hip-hop lingo. Raji resents Chili’s attempt to woo away his singer, so he orders his bodyguard, Elliot (The Rock), to rough Chili up. Elliot is an aspiring singer/actor, so when Chili promises to get him an audition, the bodyguard decides it is not in his best interest to follow orders. Raji then turns to his business partner Nick (Harvey Keitel) for help. Nick hires a hit man to whack Chili, but that doesn’t quite go as planned either.
In the meantime, a hip-hop label owner, Sin LaSalle (Cedric the Entertainer), shows up at Edie’s office to collect $300,000 that Tommy owed him. He brings with him a posse of hardcore gangsta rappers - one of whom, Dabu (Andre Benjamin of OutKast) longs to shoot somebody someday. The only way to pay off LaSalle is to break Linda’s career fast. Chili and Edie launch a plan to convince singer Steven Tyler to let Linda sing with Aerosmith during an upcoming concert.
One of the trademarks of an Elmore Leonard story is complexity. His tales are always full of characters whose criminal activities (and, often, their neuroses) intersect in various ways. You can probably tell that this quality has been brought to Be Cool. The film has a star-studded cast, and each of the characters somehow crosses paths with every other character at some point. One of the most amusing parts of the plot is the use of a pawn shop run by the Russians who killed Tommy. Items are left there by certain characters for other characters to pick up; however, if any of the intended characters actually goes in to pick up the items, he will be either killed or arrested. It’s fun, for instance, watching Chili devise a plan to retrieve an envelope from the pawn shop without actually picking it up himself; he has to find somebody else to pick it up without that person knowing what’s going on.
Leonard has a real gift for creating offbeat characters who have unexpected traits. Chili Palmer was a low-level shylock who collected debts. You’d never think that he’d have such an aptitude for the movie business, but that’s what made Get Shorty so much fun. The same holds true for the music business. Chili fundamentally understands that everybody wants something. If he can figure out what that something is, he’s home free. That understanding is the very thing that allows him to – as the title says – be so cool all the time. The supporting characters are also very intriguing, particularly Elliot. Because he is played by The Rock, you sort of expect Elliot to be a macho brute. However, the character is gay, auditions for an acting role by reciting a monologue from Bring It On (hilarious), and belts out a country song with lyrics like, “you ain’t woman enough to take away my man.” I’ve always admired the way Leonard makes such left-turns with his characters, and the movie’s screenplay (by Peter Steinfeld) captures that quality nicely.
There’s also a self-knowing sense of humor throughout the film. The very first line of dialogue features Chili Palmer dissing sequels. Later, Travolta and Thurman share a dance scene, which brings to mind a similar moment from Pulp Fiction. There’s even a joke about rock stars trying to act (delivered, naturally, by Steven Tyler).
The members of the cast seem like they are having fun with their roles, and the beauty of the film is that each actor gets a moment to shine. That way, no one fades into the background. The best character moment comes when a Russian calls Sin LaSalle the n-word. Cedric the Entertainer delivers a masterful monologue about how black culture has influenced and shaped our modern world, eventually concluding that the Russian should be thanking him rather than insulting him.
I’m not sure Be Cool ever quite matches the sheer inspiration of Get Shorty. Maybe that’s because this is a variation on a theme rather than a wholly original idea. It’s fun and the plot turns are clever, but the original had an edginess that has been softened this time around. There was a real skewering of the movie business in that book (and film); here, the music business is treated more with amusement than with satire. That is not a major flaw, though. Be Cool has a lot going for it, not the least of which is some great music, courtesy of Christina Milian. It also has a terrific group of actors carrying out Elmore Leonard’s vision…and an Elmore Leonard story is almost always more interesting than most of the pictures playing at the multiplex.
( out of four)
Be Cool is rated PG-13 for violence, sensuality, and language including sexual references. The running time is 2 hours.
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